Fleas have a complex, four-stage life cycle. Control of fleas on your pet and in your home must address all stages of this life cycle to stop the problem of flea infestation. Be careful, though, that you don't overdo flea control: Too many toxic products in and around your pet can be harmful or even fatal.
Flea Control on Your Pet
A mistake seen all too often is the "more is better" approach that some people take when using flea products. In fact, however, following package directions is essential when using over-the-counter products and medications. Only buy products that are labeled for use on the species you will be using them on (dog, cat, etc.). Cats, in particular, are very sensitive to drugs and chemicals, so be sure to read all labels carefully. Don't use multiple products at the same time.
Even when labels are read and instructions are followed, pets can have adverse reactions to flea products. Call your vet immediately. Other resources include the Animal Poison Control Center and Adverse Drug Reporting hotlines.
- A flea shampoo, or "flea bath," is a good first attack on adult fleas for the pet that has large numbers of fleas visible on its body. Cats can be difficult to bathe. It is important to realize that a flea shampoo is not intended for lasting control. Many people are surprised when they see fleas and it was "only a week ago" that the pet had a flea bath. Shampoos are only effective for a day or less. They leave little residual chemical on the animal when properly used.
- Flea dips are strong chemical rinses to rid animals not only of fleas but mites and ticks as well. Dips aren’t recommended unless absolutely necessary, as in the case of a mite infestation. Dips last approximately 1-2 weeks. That is a lot of chemical residue to leave on an animal! Flea shampoos and dips are effective for adult fleas.
- Flea collars work one of two ways: by emitting a toxic (to fleas, anyway) gas, or by being absorbed into the animal's subcutaneous fat layer. The toxic gas is usually only effective in the immediate area of the head and neck. This type of collar is best used in the vacuum cleaner bags to kill any fleas vacuumed up. The collars that absorb into the subcutaneous fat are much more effective. Flea collars are effective for adult fleas.
- Flea powders and sprays offer short-term (2-3 day) protection from fleas, and with some products, ticks, and mites too. Powders and sprays have fallen out of favor recently with the newer spot-on treatments that are available. Most flea powders and sprays are only effective for adult fleas; some offer additional flea protection by inhibiting flea egg and larval development.
- Spot-on treatments come under common brand names including Advantage, Frontline, and Bio-Spot. Ask your veterinarian about the best choice for your pet. These products are applied between the shoulder blades of the pet and typically last about one month. Spot-on treatments are effective for adult fleas. Some include ingredients to inhibit the larva from emerging from the flea egg and some are active against larval development as well.
- Flea "pills," such as the brands Program and Sentinel, work by stopping the larva from emerging from the flea egg. Program is also available as an injectable medication for cats. Fleas ingest the blood of animals on these medications, and the female fleas then lay eggs that are unable to hatch. These medications do not kill adult fleas. The medications can break the flea life cycle and stop the flea problem when used in conjunction with treatments to address adult fleas.
Flea Control for Your House and Yard
Only about 10 percent of the flea population (mainly the adults) are on your pet. The flea eggs, larvae, pupa, and the few adults that reside in the carpeting, bedding, and living areas make up approximately 90 percent of the flea population. Neglecting this population of fleas will ensure that the flea problem will continue and worsen over time. To control fleas in your house and yard, you'll need a coordinated attack that includes all of these measures:
- Daily Vacuuming is very important for overall flea eradication. This will pick up (and get rid of) adults, eggs, larvae, and pupae before they develop. Putting a flea collar in the vacuum bag and emptying the bag frequently are also important; otherwise, the fleas will hatch, develop, and leave the vacuum to re-infest the living quarters. Dispose of the vacuum bag properly and frequently.
- Wash all bedding, clothing, and removable furniture covers regularly (weekly).
- Apply insecticide to your home and yard using non-toxic diatomaceous earth (DE), foggers and flea bombs, or treatments by a professional exterminator. Follow all instructions very carefully; remove all pets, people, and cover all food in the environment before applying insecticide. Make sure everything is dry and it is safe to return according to package directions. Take special precautions for pets and children who may put the items in their mouth and eat them.